A Stand-Up Leader: Mark W. McClennan, APR, on Leading PRSA and Sharing His Passion for Math

January 4, 2016

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Mark W. McClennan, APR, likes to say that he’s the shy, quiet type. However, just listen to him speak for a moment, and his enthusiasm — whether discussing PRSA policy or the latest “Star Wars” film — is readily apparent.

And he is particularly excited about the year ahead as PRSA’s Chair.

“I’m looking forward to meeting the members. I love traveling. Just meeting the people and learning from them, and hearing their passions and their stories is unbelievably awesome,” McClennan said during an interview with Tactics during the PRSA 2015 International Conference in Atlanta on Nov. 9.

In his more than 18 years at MSLGROUP, the Boston-based McClennan, a senior vice president, has led teams in a variety of industries, including consumer technology, financial services and gaming. McClennan is part of MSLGROUP’s North American Digital Executive team and regularly advises clients on social media strategies and crisis management. His teams have been recognized with more than 45 awards for excellence in public relations, including five Silver Anvils.

McClennan has a B.A. in public relations and political science from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He is past chair of the Northeast District of PRSA and former president of PRSA Boston. In his spare time, he serves as an elected member of the Ways & Means Committee for the Town of Framingham, Mass.

Here, he discusses PRSA’s 2016-2019 Strategic Plan, the importance of math and the rewards of doing stand-up comedy.

Work on PRSA’s next strategic plan will continue in the months ahead under the leadership of Chair-Elect Jane Dvorak,  APR, Fellow PRSA. Can you talk about that process and how PRSA will build for the future?

In 2016, PRSA will update its strategic plan for 2017–2019. We’re going to look at where PRSA is prioritizing its strategic focus and making this investment to be sure that we best serve our members, continue to make ourselves relevant and grow into the future.

We are going to be using data-based decision-making and receiving input from our different stakeholders. It’s a process that we want to have completed by the middle of this year so we can talk about it at the Leadership Assembly in the fall and start executing against it at the start of January 2017.

What are some of the top challenges facing PRSA and the profession?

There are a lot of challenges. It comes down to reinforcing value and relevance. If our members need to go somewhere else to meet a pressing business need, then there’s a chance we can lose them. So we need to look at the key issues.

You can run yourself ragged chasing a whole bunch of different directions, like a 7 year old’s soccer team. We need to have the focus so we can home in on making investments in the areas that could have the biggest growth opportunities and retention. You have to make a strategic bet on a few areas.

When it comes to challenges for the profession as a whole, it’s coming down to the continued integration and broadening of the PR practitioner’s toolkit. It’s about understanding traditional as well as social and digital advertising — all the elements that a strategic counselor needs to bring to help their organizations realize their business objectives. We must make sure people are kept up to speed by the rapid and dynamic changes in the profession.

What are you hearing from members these days about PRSA and the profession?

Many people are talking to me about their ideas for improving PRSA, which I welcome. We [can become] better by our members sharing their opinions. If you’re unhappy, or if you have an idea for improvement, then talking about it among your friends doesn’t help. Let headquarters know. Let me know. Let somebody else know so we can fix these things.

Because I’m in tech public relations, a lot of people want to talk to me about social and digital and technology. But it’s really the issues facing them in their daily activities. That’s why I love being a connector. I don’t know all the answers, but I know somebody else who I can steer someone to. That’s the beauty of PRSA — with our 22,000 members, we have people who are experts in everything, and we can help other PR professionals find and engage them.

What led you to join PRSA originally?

I joined PRSSA at Syracuse University. After graduation, I got a job and was advancing in my career at a small agency. I realized I wanted to enhance my skill set.

So I went to the PRSA Boston Chapter, which was composed primarily of senior practitioners. Suddenly, I was talking to these folks who had 20–30 years of experience  —and the things they taught me!
I got more active in the Chapter and was eventually treasurer and president. I was a District chair. I was active in the Assembly. From that point, I joined the National Board as treasurer.

PRSA has given me so much. I have so many professional and personal friends who I can tap into for expertise. It’s now my turn to give back as well. But I’m still learning. And for any agency owner or senior person at an agency, if you’re not joining Counselors Academy, then you’re absolutely cutting yourself off at the knees because, right now, at this stage of my career, [it is] the single biggest benefit PRSA gives to me.

What was it about PRSA that made you want to be part of leadership?

I wanted to have my voice heard. And I wanted to have a chance to contribute. If all you do, realistically, in any organization is pay your dues and show up to a meeting, then you’re not getting all the value. Everything you put in, you get back. And that’s why you volunteer. You make the connections.

The people who I made connections with 20 years ago when I was a junior person, well — we’re now senior people. So I have great senior connections just because of where I was and the people I engaged with when I was there. If you’re not doing more than just going to Chapter meetings and reading our amazing publications and all the other great content that we put out, then you’re missing the boat of what PRSA can offer you.

Who are some of your mentors?

Realistically, you learn a little bit of something from everybody. But there are four people who stand out in my mind. Maria Russell, APR, Fellow PRSA, was one of my first professors at Syracuse University. She’s the one who first came into my life and helped me start my career.

Judy Wicks, APR, Fellow PRSA, was my client for 14 years until she retired. I’m still working with her company. She is the one who prodded me to get even more involved. She had her APR, and she said, “You’re running my account. You’re in PRSA. Why don’t you have your APR?” And I thought, “You know, you’re right.” She said, “When I was at an agency, I loved Counselors Academy. Why don’t you try it?” She and I still talk today.

Ann Getman, APR, taught me so much about PR research. And then there’s Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA. He’s a former board member. He and Ann led my APR study group. Kirk’s been a great reference and mentor for me in my career, and is somebody I turn to for input.

Are there some leaders who inspire you?

Ronald Reagan is one of my heroes. And I’m not just saying this because he’s my new boss, but Ron Guirguis at MSLGROUP — I am just so impressed by what I’ve seen from him so far.

If you were speaking to a room of young professionals who are not PRSA members, then how would you sell them on the value of a PRSA membership?

If you’re serious about your career, then there is no better way for you to get mentoring, professional development, sounding boards and friends than by joining PRSA. It’s like investing in your 401(k) — if you start doing it at 30, it’s never going to catch up. If I had started earlier in PRSA, then I’d have even better connections there.

What’s one nugget of advice that you’d always pass along?

If you’re in doubt, then make the jump. Somebody told me recently that you can’t jump a chasm in two jumps. You’ve got to make the big leap if you want to get across. And if you fail, then that’s an opportunity to learn and excel. And you go pick yourself up.

I still remember taking a big swing when my boss said to me, “Call whoever you want [to pitch] the story.” So I called USA Today. Normally, people in my rank did not call USA Today. And he’s like, “You did what?” I thought, “Oh, my God. I’m dead. I’m being fired.” He said, “You keep that up, and you’re going to be going places in this firm.” He loved it.

At the Leadership Assembly in Atlanta, you talked about removing “I hate math” from the PR lexicon. Where does this come from?

That’s one of my personal passions. PR professionals love language and working with words. [But] the language of business is numbers and math.

Our CEOs and our CFOs look at that. If we want to be strategic counselors and advisers, then the minute you tell your CEO or your CFO, “I don’t like math,” or he or she hears that, you’re selling yourself short.

It’s a self-inflicted wound. I don’t care if you do hate math. Don’t say it. And that applies to professors who are teaching the students who make the jokes. This is a fixable problem.

If you’re looking at the realm of big data and analytics and all the changes that are going on, and if you don’t like math, then you are going to be significantly hampering your career down the road. I plan on making that message heard in bylines and commentary.

I heard that you have been doing some stand-up comedy.

Steve Cody [the former Counselors Academy chair] is the reason that I got into doing stand-up comedy.

It was at a Counselors Academy meeting several years ago, and there was a panel on comedy. Steve brought in his comedy trainer. And they decided to embarrass me because I’m a shy, quiet guy that they knew would get up there. [Laughs.] I did and it was fun. And then I started doing it on a regular basis. I’ve been writing observations from the time my kids were born that I call “Daddy’s Rules.”

In tech public relations, I can talk about bits and data. But when I’m out there making an audience laugh, it’s relatable. It makes you a better presenter. It makes you understand how to read the room, engage, be dynamic and drive that forward.

What are you looking forward to most during your year of being Chair?

One is helping PRSA prepare for the next 20–30 years. We are at a point with a CEO [Joseph Truncale] who’s been on board for a year of making changes. And he and I both agree — you need to move fast. I’ve heard people say, “It’s an evolution, not a revolution.” Well, some revolutionary steps are bigger than others.

Two, I’m looking forward to meeting the members. I love traveling. I’ve spoken to folks from Milwaukee to Rochester, N.Y. Just meeting the people and learning from them, and hearing their passions and their stories is unbelievably awesome. Otherwise, I’m just shy and quiet. But when I meet people, it’s just an energizing, great thing. 

Getting to Know… Mark W. McClennan, APR

Any three dinner guests?
Ronald Reagan, Edward Bernays and Rudyard Kipling

Favorite films?
My list runs the gamut from “Star Wars” to “Highlander” to “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Favorite place to travel?
Northern Maine and New Hampshire

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



Gerard Francis Corbett says:

Well done Mark and John!!! Now let's see where we can take this organization in 2016. Looking forward to your advancing the PRofession and the PRofessional.

Jan. 6, 2016

James R. Jaye, APR says:

Love the comments on removing "I hate math" from the PR lexicon. It's a lesson I took to heart early in my career and has paid tremendous dividends (no pun intended) ever since. It's a piece of advice I often give younger practitioners. Absolutely spot on Mark!

Jan. 12, 2016

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